Analysis by Peter Kanjere:
Conceding late in games when victory is just the next breath and cough away has always been Malawi national football team’s Achilles’ heel—no matter which generation of players and coaches are on duty.
But beyond being reactive to the problem, groaning and ridiculing the players, there has been no attempt to find a scientific explanation to this curse which is connected to mental and physical frailties of the footballers and tactical gaps.
“We just lack that maturity to kill off games,” Malawi interim Coach, Meke Mwase, told the press in South Africa after the back-to-back late collapse at the probing of Mozambique and Zambia.
Ironically, Mwase was part of the Flames squad that was a mere cough away from sealing a place at the 1998 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) finals, but allowed Mozambique—who are specialists in robbing the Flames of victory—to score late winners through Emmanuel Bucuane and Cicino Cuonde in the qualifying match.
However, there were no questions of immaturity in that game, which took place on July 12 1997 at Machava Stadium in Maputo, as the Flames comprised experienced campaigners such as Patrick Mabedi, Shabba Phiri, Laurent Kamanga, Bothwell Kuwanda, Ernest Mtawali, Chancy Gondwe, Wilfred Nyalugwe, Albert Mpinganjira, Jones Nkhwazi and John Maduka.
In that collapse of Machava, the Flames needed a draw and were seven minutes away from qualifying after going in front through Nkhwazi’s goal.
Perhaps, what happened in that game set a bad template for future Flames generations to follow.
Therefore, the latest injury-time collapse of the Flames during Cosafa games against Mozambique and Zambia was a fresh reminder that this football ailment is drug-resistant.
That incurable disease reappeared to strike the mentally and physically fragile Flames on May 30 2019 when Mozambique equalised during the dead-rubber Group B qualifier. The match ended 1-1.
While this result had no consequence, what followed on June 2019 hurt the Flames and their army of followers.
With the clock clicking to salvation for the Flames who led 2-1, Zambia equalised to make it 2-2 and pave the way for post-match penalties which Chipolopolo won 4-2.
Impressive left-back Precious Sambani, whose back-pass goalkeeper Ernest Kakhobwe missed terribly as if it was small like a cricket ball, earned Zambia the second goal.
That trend to self-destruction has always continued including in 2011 when the Flames let a 2-1 lead slip as Chad levelled matters to deny Malawi back-to-back Afcon qualifications.
Letting slip a lead is nothing strange for Malawi at the Cosafa Cup as, in 2015, the Flames seemed headed for the semi-final only for Mozambique to score and make it 2-2 taking the game into post-match penalties. Of course, Mambas won the game.
The 2015 edition took place in South Africa’s North West Province where the Flames travelled alongside consultant Andy Dell to monitor the performance of coach Young Chimodzi and Jack Chamangwana (deceased).
After the games, the Englishman, who was credited with setting up Surestream Academy structures in Blantyre, gave his candid assessment of why the Flames concede late.
“Lapse in concentration is also due to the fact that the players are not subjected to pressure in training. It is about different coaching techniques. After losing to Mozambique, we tried different things and it worked” Dell told The Nation on June 1 2015.
“If players are not subjected to pressure during training, you cannot expect them to handle pressure during games. It is about decisionmaking when under pressure.”
Most Flames players are drawn from the TNM Super League where games involving the giants—Be Forward Wanderers, Nyasa Big Bullets and Silver Strikers—who contribute the most players to the national team are predictable strolls in the park.
This means that players from the big three are hardly exposed to high-pressure games which they experience on the international stage.
However, local sports scientist, Mark Tembo, attributed the concentration lapse to inadequate physical fitness.
The fitness theory might be true with the Zambia game considering that the Flames had, going into that match, played on May 26, 28 and 30 against Seychelles, Namibia and Mozambique respectively, making it three games in five days.
Football regulations recommend a 24-hour window before another match.
Maybe, Mwase should have pressed the panic button and forewarned Malawians that fatigue was catching up with his boys.
Mwase only mentioned this after the game when Kakhobwe and Sambani were already at the receiving end of criticism.
“I am equally at pains following the incident. It was not my intention to miss the ball. If you can look closely at the ball, it hit a bump and changed direction as I was about to hit it. As such, I missed it as I was also in motion. I know the nation is at pains; so am I. Let us forget the mistake and learn the lessons,” Kakhobwe told The Daily Times.
Player rotation usually helps mitigate effects of burnout but Mwase does not have such a luxury as few of his reserve players have made an impact when thrown into action.
Mozambique’s late equaliser was understandable. Mwase had made wholesale changes, fielding seven reserve players in the starting XI while preserving top players for the crucial quarter-final battle against the noisy neighbour, Zambia.
But the loss to Zambia has an element of tactical miscalculation. The Flames responded to Chipolopolo’s introduction of two attacking players by throwing in attacking players.
Being pragmatic by introducing more defensive options to preserve the 2-1 lead could have made more sense as it was clear that Zambia were piling pressure on Malawi.
Yes, the best form of defence is attack but against Zambia, the Flames had their backs to the wall—rarely attacking.
However, only an informed scientific examination of this age-old Flames’ weakness of conceding late can go a long way in bringing the answers.
Otherwise, it has been a relatively good outing for the Flames at this Cosafa Cup.
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